An American scholar who recently held three long meetings with one of El Salvador's top guerrilla leaders says that the Salvadoran leftists are seriously interested in peace negotiations.
Robert S. Leiken, director of the Soviet-Latin American Project at the Georgetown University Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), also suggests that there are serious differences among the five main guerrilla groups fighting in El Salvador. Contrary to allegations made by American officials, Mr. Leiken says he believes that there is considerable resistance among certain of these groups to both Soviet and Cuban blandishments.
Just before the recent Salvadoran elections, Mr. Leiken met in Managua, Nicaragua, with Ferman Cienfuegos, in charge of foreign relations for the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) and leader of the FARN, Armed Force of National Resistance. Leiken said the guerrilla leaders wanted to talk with him because of testimony which he had given before a House subcommittee last September.
In testimony on April 1 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Leiken charged that the Reagan administration had steadfastly refused to engage in anything but ''the most superficial and preliminary conversations'' with the guerrillas' political front organization and ''has made no effort to explore the views of the FMLN.''
''This situation led me to accept an invitation by the FMLN leadership to meet with them the week before the (Salvadoran) elections in Managua,'' he explained.
The scholar said that Mr. Cienfuegos and two other members of the FMLN ''expressed repeatedly their desire for negotiations.''
Cienfuegos, who was said to speak for all five guerrilla groups, told Leiken that ''all wars end in political settlements'' and that in the war in El Salvador ''there are no winners and losers.''
The objective of the FMLN's military strategy, Cienfuegos said, is ''not the defeat of the army but to bring about negotiations.''
On the basis of these conversations and what he described as the opinion of informed observers, Leiken suggested that there are several reasons why there is a ''sincere desire for negotiations'' within the FMLN. He said that the guerrilla leaders appear confident that their military strength is growing but recognize that a government produced through military victory would have serious problems, not the least of them being the hostility of the United States.
''The reconstruction of the war-devastated economy would be perhaps insuperably difficult should the United States seek to embargo the Salvadoran economy,'' Leiken said.
''A second FMLN motive for negotiating is the popular desire for peace in El Salvador,'' Leiken said.
These factors help to explain why the guerrillas have ''progressively softened'' their negotiating position even as they have gained ground militarily , Leiken said. He said that the guerrillas have now agreed to the preservation of the ''institutionality'' of the Salvadoran government army in a negotiated settlement, and are prepared to participate in elections and to guarantee a nonaligned foreign policy.
Cienfuegos told the American, for example, that the FMLN had agreed that should the Soviet Union invade Poland, it would condemn the action. Cienfuegos expressed admiration for Yugoslavian socialism and said he believes that Yugoslavia and Algeria are ''models of nonalignment because they steer clear of the East-West conflict.''
Cienfuegos, said Leiken, could eventually play a role similar to that of the late President Tito of Yugoslavia or Robert Mugabe, the prime minister of Zimbabwe, who professes to be a Marxist but keeps his distance from the Soviet Union.
According to Leiken, Cienfuegos's FARN, along with the ERP (Revolutionary People's Army) and the PRTC (Central American Worker's Party) are the most nonaligned of the five guerrilla groups.
A major argument against negotiations which is heard in Washington is that among the opposition groups, the men who have the guns and hold the most power are hard-line Marxist-Leninists.
But according to Leiken, the groups farthest from the Soviet Union constitute nearly two thirds of the men under arms. The relatively pro-Soviet FPL is the largest group in terms of members but not of armed guerrillas. They are said to make up 22 percent of the guerrillas' total fighting force.